Legal Analysis: Disability Discrimination and Damages at the Appellate Court

Today the Connecticut Appellate Court officially released its decision in Tomick v. UPS. This case dealt with two questions: first, does an employee in a disability case need to show they were qualified for their job as part of their prima facie case; and second, can courts order punitive damages in discrimination cases.

To give a bit of legal background on the first question, a party alleging a claim of discrimination (the plaintiff) must establish, at the very least, a prima facie case. The prima facie case consists of certain basic facts which, if demonstrated, create a rebuttable presumption in the plaintiff’s favor. The United States Supreme Court has set out a framework for establishing a prima facie case in discrimination cases. Under this framework, plaintiffs must demonstrate that: 1) they are in a protected class; 2) they were qualified for the position; 3) they suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.

In Tomick, the defendant argued that, under this framework, a plaintiff bringing a claim of disability discrimination must show as part of their prima facie case that they were capable of performing the essential functions of their job at the time of the adverse employment action alleged to be discriminatory. The Connecticut Appellate Court found otherwise.

The Appellate Court held that if the issue of qualification is not relevant to the main question of whether there was discrimination, the framework does not require that a plaintiff bringing a disability discrimination claim have been capable of performing their essential job functions at the time of the challenged action. This would come up in a case where, for example, the employer does not claim in defense that the plaintiff’s disability resulted in unsatisfactory performance or a lack of qualifications, with or without reasonable accommodations.

The second question at issue in this case dealt with whether a court can award punitive damages under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-104, the statute setting forth the available relief in civil actions claiming discrimination. The plaintiff argued that the use of the phrase “including, but not limited to” in § 46a-104 meant that punitive damages should be an available remedy, even though they are not mentioned in the statute. The court again disagreed.

The Appellate Court held that “[b]ecause the language of § 46a–104 does not explicitly provide for punitive damages, the plaintiff is not entitled to such relief under the statute.” The court based its decision on a review of case precedent and legislative history, coupled with principles of statutory interpretation. The court also pointed out that the legislature had expressly allowed for punitive damages in some specific kinds of discrimination cases, such as those alleging discrimination in credit, housing, and public accommodations. This led the court to conclude that “the legislature knows how to provide for punitive damages when it deems it appropriate,” which apparently does not include cases alleging discrimination in employment.

The court did note, however, that the Connecticut Supreme Court has never addressed the issue of punitive damages under this statute, and superior courts have been split in their decisions. This could indicate that the case, or at least the issue, may ultimately have a different outcome if the Connecticut Supreme Court decides to weigh in.

Note: The CHRO submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in this case.